The Dark Psychology of the Sexist Internet Commenter

A new study has found that men and women comment on news stories very differently—and that men don't feel shy about expressing misogyny.

They say you should never read the comments. But sometimes, out of procrastination or curiosity or the narcissistic personality disorder that's endemic to newsrooms, you do.

And if you happen to write about gender, like I do, some of the comments you'll find will make you want to douse your laptop in Diet Coke and go paint artisanal pottery for a living instead.

For example, when I wrote about how, according to clinical studies, female leaders are expected to perform within a “narrow band of acceptable behavior,” the first commenter responded, “Isn't it the women who are generally less tolerant of all human behavior (be that male or female) that doesn't conform to 'average?'”

Touché, Professor Retrograde! Don’t worry, I’m sure any day now that dissertation on the superiority of the male brain will be accepted and you can get yourself a tenured job and prove Mom wrong forever.

I kid, of course (sort of). But I do often wonder, “Who are these people?” Who would take time out of their day just to post sexist rants on news articles?

Science may now have the answer, and it's not encouraging. Corinne Moss-Racusin, Aneta Molenda, and Charlotte Cramer from Skidmore College recently harvested 1,135 comments that had been posted on three sites—the New York Times, Discover magazine, and IFL Science—in response to articles that reported on a study finding that science professors subtly prefer male undergrads. The researchers determined the gender of the commenters by looking at their profile photos or names, though they discarded unisex or ambiguous names. In all, they were able to determine the gender of 51 percent of the commenters, and 57 percent of them were women.

Moss-Racusin and her colleagues then analyzed the content of the comments and sorted them into different categories, based on whether they had made a blatantly sexist remark, justified the gender bias, or claimed that gender bias does not actually exist. About a third of the comments fell into these types of “negative” categories.

Their study, recently published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, found that the negative comments were significantly more likely to be written by men. Mind you, these are not comments criticizing the quality of the journalism. These are comments such as, “The successful males I train simply seem to be hungrier and more willing to make the personnel [sic] sacrifices required to get ahead of the competition.” About 5 percent of the comments contained blatantly misogynistic remarks, such as “In every competitive situation, with a few exceptions, the women I worked with were NOT competent, by comparison with the men,” and all but one of those comments was left by a man.

Meanwhile, comments supporting the conclusions of the study, like “‘Wow, thanks for sharing this. It’s alarming that men and women both rated female students lower,” were more likely to be posted by women. The biggest gender difference emerged in the category of comments that said bias against women does exist. Seventy-one percent of those responses were left by women.

“This finding is consistent with other work suggesting that women are more likely than men to perceive sexism, in part because they are more likely to experience it,” the researchers write. “Similarly, men may be unlikely to acknowledge gender bias in order to maintain their own privileged position in the social hierarchy.”

It’s worth noting that what commenters say online isn't necessarily what they would say in a meeting at the office. Because of the online disinhibition effect, people feel more free to let loose their brain bile when they don’t have to do it in person.

On the other hand, if there is truth in wine, perhaps there’s some in Internet comments, too. Maybe “I don't trust anything that bleeds for five days and doesn't die” isn’t really something the commenter would say out loud to a woman. But it might be something he actually thinks—and when it comes to the hidden biases women face, that’s all that matters.